Opinion: Why online learning is more difficult for elementary school students than college students

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Elementary school students are struggling to stay engaged in online Zoom classes.

Maritza Camacho, Staff Writer

Since the pandemic started, Sonoma County classrooms have switched to online learning. As college students, we think we have it the hardest by trying to teach ourselves this entire semester while Zoom classes don’t fill that void. But imagine how much harder online learning would be when you have to teach yourself the subject, but without the ability to read or write.

As a distance learning support leader for Santa Rosa Recreation & Parks, I have witnessed the struggles elementary school students face in trying to learn online. Teachers have been using an array of online learning programs—Seesaw, Khan Academy, Google Classroom and Lexia to name a few—to keep kids from falling behind. 

Yet a large portion of elementary school kids are doing just that. Edsource.org reports, “Higher rates of failing grades and of chronic absenteeism, in an analysis of 33 California districts by the consulting firm SI&A.” Unlike college students, many elementary school students don’t have the same basic learning abilities to fall back on to keep up with their schoolwork. Imagine being a sixth grader, expected to write essays and read 200-page books, yet being illiterate. I work together with teachers to try to keep the children caught up, but I end up stuck between them actually learning or me doing the work for them.

Another issue arises with kids who only speak Spanish and, prior to the pandemic, were beginning to learn English. Who do they ask for help at home when their parents can’t understand what the homework problem says? At the Distance Learning program I work for, I am one of the few in my classroom staff who is bilingual and about half of the class doesn’t know English. The kids are from different grades so the work that is expected for all of them varies, but it comes down to not being able to do the work because of the language barrier.

Other elementary school students in the country who don’t know how to speak or write in English have large capacities of knowledge, yet they fall through the cracks of the education system when they don’t have someone to help them translate their work. These students become frustrated and give up. And no, Google Translate is not enough. 

College students might argue that just like them, elementary students also have resources to help them in their education and not fall behind. It’s true, these kids who are illiterate or have a language barrier do have special support classes such as ELD or Speech therapy. The Distance Learning program I work for is another support system that students can fall back on when they are struggling. 

However in many cases, parents work all day and leave kids alone. Unlike college students, elementary school students don’t have the same self-motivation to learn. Leah Hernandez, 31, a recreation specialist for the City of Santa Rosa Distance Learning Hub, said, “For younger students, their work isn’t as independent [as college students’].They are still learning the fundamentals whereas most college students have that basis. College students can learn a little bit more independently than younger kids who still need that teacher instruction.” 

When looking over the students’ work, I noticed that after the shutdown was announced, many of these students didn’t show up entirely to any Zoom class or complete any online work for the rest of that semester. They were probably not the only ones and many students right now aren’t logging in to their Zoom classes because they don’t have the extra support or push they need. 

Most distance learning in-person programs, such as the one I work at for the city, are fee-based like tutors and although the fees in our program are at a highly discounted rate, it’s a lottery to be able to get into the program. According to the Pew Research Center, “Among upper-income parents, 19% say they have hired someone to provide additional instruction or resources beyond what is being provided by their children’s school. Far smaller shares of those with lower (8%) or middle (7%) incomes say they have done this.” 

A solution I want to bring to light to help non-English speaking students stay on track in their education is to introduce learning pods specifically made for these students to comprehend their work in their own language. Number of COVID infections in Sonoma County keeps rising, especially in the Latino communities, so I don’t want huge classrooms of elementary students in these programs. But these programs would be run like a half day ELD class- from when classes start until noon. 

There should be two separate groups per day, per classroom, each class consisting of students who don’t speak English and bilingual staff. At the first half of the day, group one would come in and at noon, group one would leave and group two would arrive. COVID precautions would continue to stay in place. This new kind of program would keep students COVID safe, while at the same time receiving reliable help from multiple staff that can progress their English learning. It would still be fee-based, but at the same discounted rate the Learning Hub I work at provides. 

I don’t want to discredit the hard work that I know teachers are putting into making distance learning function, but language barriers are more difficult to work around. For the past four months I’ve worked with these kids and I feel like I am making a difference in their lives. I am helping 12 kids tread water. I know my Spanish isn’t perfect, but I’ve learned that it’s good enough for a child to comprehend an assignment. 

Sometimes I feel like I am working alone, like I am the only person able to help these students who don’t know English. It gets stressful, tiresome, and at the end of the day I have my own life issues to worry about. But each day there are small moments that make my hard work worthwhile, like when students tell me I’m their inspiration and the glowing excitement in their eyes when I come into the classroom. These kids are our future. Our future doctors, lawyers, and presidents who might fight another global pandemic. This pandemic has halted their education path and these elementary students who don’t speak English deserve the resources they need to be successful in school.